Alzheimer's disease: Unraveling the Mystery

Alzheimer's disease: Unraveling the Mystery

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Description: The Impact of AD: Once considered a rare disorder, Alzheimer’s disease is now seen as a major public health problem that is seriously affecting millions of older Americans and their families. The Federal government’s lead agency for Alzheimer’s disease research is the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health. NIH is part of the U.S.

Department of Health and Human Services. Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. Although the risk of developing AD increases with age – in most people with AD, symptoms first appear after age 60 – AD is not a part of normal aging.

It is caused by a fatal disease that affects the brain.

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National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health


The Impact of AD
Once considered a rare disorder,
Alzheimer’s disease is now seen as a
major public health problem that is
seriously affecting millions of older
Americans and their families.

The Federal government’s lead agency for Alzheimer’s
disease research is the National Institute on Aging, part of
the National Institutes of Health. NIH is part of the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services.
Slide 2

Alzheimer’s Disease: Unraveling the Mystery
• What is AD? (slides 4 – 6)
• Inside the Human Brain (slides 8 – 14)
• AD and the Brain (slides 16 – 22)
• AD Research: Finding New Answers and Asking Better
Questions (slides 24 – 35)
• Improving Support for Families and Other Caregivers
(slides 37 – 39)
• Where to Get Help (slides 40-41)
Slide 3

What is AD?
Alzheimer’s disease is an
irreversible, progressive brain
disease that slowly destroys
memory and thinking skills.

Although the risk of developing AD increases with age – in
most people with AD, symptoms first appear after age 60 –
AD is not a part of normal aging. It is caused by a fatal
disease that affects the brain.
Slide 4

What is AD?
AD Statistics….
• AD is the most common
cause of dementia among
people age 65 and older.
• Scientists estimate that
around 4.5 million people
now have AD.
• For every 5-year age
group beyond 65, the
percentage of people with
AD doubles.

• By 2050, 13.2 million older
Americans are expected to have
AD if the current numbers hold
and no preventive treatments
become available.
Slide 5

What is AD?
Where are people with AD cared for?
• home
• assisted living facilities (those in
the early stages)
• nursing homes (special care units)

• The national cost of caring for
people with AD is about $100
billion every year.

Slide 6

Inside the Human Brain
• The Brain’s Vital Statistics (slide 8)
• The Three Main Players (slides 9 – 11)
• Other Crucial Parts (slide 12)

• The Brain in Action (slide 13)
• Neurons (slide 14)

Slide 7

Inside the
Human Brain
To understand
Alzheimer’s disease,
it’s important to
know a bit about the
The Brain’s Vital Statistics
• Adult weight:
about 3 pounds
• Adult size:
a medium cauliflower
• Number of neurons:
(100 billion)
• Number of synapses
(the gap between neurons):
(100 trillion)
Slide 8

Inside the Human Brain
The Three Main Players

1. Cerebral Hemispheres – where sensory information received from the
outside world is processed; this part of the brain controls voluntary
movement and regulates conscious thought and mental activity:

accounts for 85% of brain’s weight

consists of two hemispheres connected by the corpus callosum

is covered by an outer layer called the cerebral cortex

Slide 9

Inside the Human Brain
The Three Main Players

2. Cerebellum – in charge of balance and coordination:

takes up about 10% of brain

consists of two hemispheres

receives information from eyes, ears, and muscles and joints
about body’s movements and position

Slide 10

Inside the Human Brain
The Three Main Players

3. Brain Stem – connects the spinal cord with the brain

relays and receives messages to and from muscles, skin, and
other organs

controls automatic functions such as heart rate, blood pressure,
and breathing

Slide 11

Inside the Human Brain
Other Crucial Parts

• Hippocampus: where short-term memories are converted to
long-term memories
• Thalamus: receives sensory and limbic information and
sends to cerebral cortex
• Hypothalamus: monitors certain activities and controls
body’s internal clock
• Limbic system: controls emotions and instinctive behavior
(includes the hippocampus and parts of the cortex)
Slide 12

Inside the Human Brain
The Brain in Action

Hearing Words

Speaking Words

Seeing Words

Thinking about Words

Different mental activities take place in different parts of the
brain. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans can measure
this activity. Chemicals tagged with a tracer “light up” activated
regions shown in red and yellow.

Slide 13

Inside the
Human Brain

• The brain has billions of
neurons, each with an axon
and many dendrites.

• To stay healthy, neurons
must communicate with
each other, carry out
metabolism, and repair
• AD disrupts all three of
these essential jobs.

Slide 14

AD and the Brain
• Plaques and Tangles (slides 16 – 18)

• The Changing Brain in AD (slides 19 – 22)

Slide 15

AD and the Brain
Plaques and Tangles: The Hallmarks of AD
The brains of people with AD have an abundance of two
abnormal structures:
• beta-amyloid plaques, which are dense deposits of protein and
cellular material that accumulate outside and around nerve
• neurofibrillary tangles, which are twisted fibers that build up
inside the nerve cell

An actual AD plaque

An actual AD tangle
Slide 16

AD and the Brain
Beta-amyloid Plaques

Amyloid precursor protein (APP) is the
precursor to amyloid plaque.
1. APP sticks through the neuron



2. Enzymes cut the APP into fragments
of protein, including beta-amyloid.
3. Beta-amyloid fragments come together
in clumps to form plaques.

In AD, many of these clumps form,
disrupting the work of neurons. This
affects the hippocampus and other areas
of the cerebral cortex.
Slide 17

AD and the Brain

Neurons have an internal support structure partly made up of
microtubules. A protein called tau helps stabilize microtubules. In AD,
tau changes, causing microtubules to collapse, and tau proteins clump
together to form neurofibrillary tangles.
Slide 18

AD and the Brain
The Changing Brain in
Alzheimer’s Disease
No one knows what causes AD to begin,
but we do know a lot about what happens
in the brain once AD takes hold.

Pet Scan of
Normal Brain

Pet Scan of Alzheimer’s
Disease Brain
Slide 19

AD and the Brain
Preclinical AD

• Signs of AD are first noticed in
the entorhinal cortex, then
proceed to the hippocampus.
• Affected regions begin to shrink
as nerve cells die.
• Changes can begin 10-20 years
before symptoms appear.
• Memory loss is the first sign of

Slide 20

AD and the Brain
Mild to Moderate AD

• AD spreads through the brain. The
cerebral cortex begins to shrink as
more and more neurons stop
working and die.
• Mild AD signs can include memory
loss, confusion, trouble handling
money, poor judgment, mood
changes, and increased anxiety.
• Moderate AD signs can include
increased memory loss and
confusion, problems recognizing
people, difficulty with language
and thoughts, restlessness,
agitation, wandering, and repetitive
Slide 21

AD and the Brain
Severe AD

• In severe AD, extreme shrinkage
occurs in the brain. Patients are
completely dependent on others for
• Symptoms can include weight loss,
seizures, skin infections, groaning,
moaning, or grunting, increased
sleeping, loss of bladder and bowel
• Death usually occurs from
aspiration pneumonia or other
infections. Caregivers can turn to a
hospice for help and palliative care.
Slide 22

AD Research: Finding New Answers
and Asking Better Questions
• The Search for Causes (slides 24 – 28 )

• Diagnosing AD (slides 29 – 30)
• Clinical Trials (slide 31)

• The Search for Treatments (slides 32-33)
• New NIA Study (slide 34)
• Managing the Symptoms of AD (slide 35)

Slide 23

AD Research: the
Search for Causes
AD develops

• AD develops when genetic, lifestyle, and environmental
factors work together to cause the disease process to start.
• In recent years, scientists have discovered genetic links to
AD. They are also investigating other factors that may
play a role in causing AD. NIA-funded Alzheimer’s
Disease Centers (ADCs) across the country are leading
the research efforts looking into causes, diagnosis, and
treatment of AD.
Slide 24

AD Research: the Search for Causes
Genetic Studies
The two main types of AD are
early-onset and late-onset:
• Early-onset AD is rare, usually
affecting people aged 30 to 60
and usually running in families.
Researchers have identified
mutations in three genes that
cause early-onset AD.
• Late-onset AD is more
common. It usually affects
people over age 65. Researchers
have identified a gene that produces a protein called apolipoprotein E (ApoE).
Scientists believe this protein is involved in the formation of beta-amyloid
Slide 25

AD Research: the Search for Causes
Late-onset AD
Genetics Study
• Partnership between the NIA and the
Alzheimer’s Association
• Need to recruit a total of 1,000 families to
find the remaining late-onset risk factor
• 2 or more living siblings with AD

• One other living family member with or
without AD
• Contact: e-mail: or
Slide 26

AD Research: the Search for Causes
Studies at the Cellular and
Molecular Level
• Oxidative damage from free
radical molecules can injure

• Homocysteine, an amino acid, is a risk factor for heart disease. A study
shows that an elevated level of homocysteine is associated with
increased risk of AD.
• Scientists are also looking at inflammation in certain regions of the
brain and strokes as risk factors for AD.

Slide 27

AD Research: the Search for Causes
Epidemiologic Studies
Scientists examine characteristics, lifestyles, and disease
rates of groups of people to gather clues about possible
causes of AD. The NIA is currently funding epidemiologic
studies in a variety of different groups. Two of the studies
focus on religious communities. Researchers conduct
yearly exams of physical and mental status, and studies of
donated brains at autopsy. Some early results indicate:
• Mentally stimulating activity protects the brain in some
• In early life, higher skills in grammar and density of ideas
are associated with protection against AD in late life.

Slide 28

AD Research: Diagnosing AD
Experienced physicians in specialized AD
centers can now diagnose AD with up to 90
percent accuracy. Early diagnosis has
• Doctors can rule out other conditions
that may cause dementia.

• If it is AD, families have more time to
plan for the future.
• Treatments can start earlier, when they
may be more effective.
• It helps scientists learn more about the
causes and development of AD.
Slide 29

AD Research: Diagnosing AD
Physicians today use a number
of tools to diagnose AD:
• a detailed patient history

• information from family and
• physical and neurological
exams and lab tests
• neuropsychological tests
• imaging tools such as CT scan,
or magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI). PET scans are used
primarily for research purposes
Slide 30

AD Research: Clinical Trials
Clinical trials are the primary way
that researchers find out if a
promising treatment is safe and
• Trials examine approved drugs
to see if they can be used for
other purposes, or look at
experimental drugs.
• Participating in a trial means
regular contact with the study
team, who can provide state-ofthe-art AD care.
Slide 31

AD Research: the Search for Treatments
Drugs used to treat mild to moderate AD symptoms include:
• Aricept



An additional drug, Namenda, has been approved to treat symptoms of
moderate to severe AD. These drugs can help improve some patients’
abilities to carry out activities up to a year or so, but they do not stop or
reverse AD.
Scientists are also studying agents that someday may be
useful in preventing AD. For example, they have
experimented with a vaccine against AD. Although the
first clinical trial was stopped due to side effects in some
participants, valuable information was gathered.

Slide 32

AD Research: the Search for New Treatments
Researchers also are looking at other treatments,
• cholesterol-lowering drugs called
• anti-oxidants (vitamins) and folic acid
• anti-inflammatory drugs
• substances that prevent formation of
beta-amyloid plaques
• nerve growth factor to keep neurons

Slide 33

AD Research: New NIA Study
The NIA is launching a new research
partnership, called the Neuroimaging and
Biomarkers of AD Initiative, to study how
the brain changes in Mild Cognitive
Impairment (MCI) and AD.
• Using MRIs and PET scans conducted at
regular intervals, researchers hope to learn
precisely when and where in the brain
problems occur.
• Researchers will also examine blood samples
to check for higher levels of abnormal
substances that could be considered
“biomarkers” of AD.
Slide 34

AD Research: Managing Symptoms
Between 70 to 90% of people with AD eventually
develop behavioral symptoms, including sleeplessness,
wandering and pacing, aggression, agitation, anger,
depression, and hallucinations and delusions. Experts
suggest these general coping strategies for managing
difficult behaviors:
• Stay calm and be understanding.
• Be patient and flexible. Don’t argue or try to convince.
• Acknowledge requests and respond to them.
• Try not to take behaviors personally. Remember: it’s
the disease talking, not your loved one.
Experts encourage caregivers to try non-medical coping strategies
first. However, medical treatment is often available if the behavior
has become too difficult to handle. Researchers continue to look at
both non-medical and medical ways to help caregivers.
Slide 35

Improving Support for Families
and Other Caregivers
• Who are the AD Caregivers? (slide 37)
• Demands of Caregiving (slide 38)

• Technology and Caregiving (slide 39)
• National Support for Caregivers (slide 40)
• How to Contact the ADEAR Center (slide 41)

Slide 36

Support for Caregivers
Who are the AD Caregivers?
• Spouses – the largest group. Most are older with
their own health problems.
• Daughters – the second largest group. Called the
“sandwich generation,” many are married and
raising children of their own. Children may need
extra support if a parent’s attention is focused on
• Grandchildren – may become major helpers.
• Daughters-in-law – the third largest group.
• Sons – often focus on the financial, legal, and
business aspects of caregiving.
• Brothers and Sisters – many are older with
their own health problems.
• Other – friends, neighbors, members of the
faith community.
Slide 37

Support for Caregivers
Demands of Caregiving
AD takes a huge physical and
emotional toll. Caregivers must
deal with changes in a loved one’s
personality and provide constant
attention for years. Thus, caregivers
are especially vulnerable to
physical and emotional stress.
• Peer support programs can help link
caregivers with trained volunteers.
Other support programs can offer
services geared to caregivers dealing
with different stages of AD.

Slide 38

Support for Caregivers
Technology and Caregiving
The NIA is studying how computers
can provide information and support
to family caregivers through:
• computer-based bulletin boards
• chat rooms
• Q & A modules
• medical advice forums
These features have become very popular among users
because they reach many people at once, are private and
convenient, and are available around the clock.
Slide 39

National Support for Caregivers
Alzheimer’s Association
• Local chapters provide referrals to
area resources and services, and
sponsor the Safe Return Program,
support groups, and educational

Eldercare Locator
• Nationwide service of the Federal
Government helps caregivers
locate local support and resources:
Slide 40

For more information on Alzheimer’s disease and a
list of the NIA-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Centers,
contact the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and
Referral (ADEAR) Center at:

The ADEAR Center is a service of:
National Institute on Aging, part of the

National Institutes of Health (NIH), part of the
Department of Health and Human Services
This PowerPoint slideshow is based on the publication Alzheimer’s Disease:
Unraveling the Mystery. Contact the ADEAR Center for free copies.
Slide 41